A few years ago, around the time when I realised that I wouldn’t be making a career out of classroom teaching, I got the idea of writing stories for children. I was into George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series, and I had fond memories of Blackadder from when I was a kid. A factually accurate, yet unserious take on history appealed to me. Also, I was starting to feel the need to counteract the usual way Scottish history was portrayed in classrooms (which went along the lines of: Bonnie Prince Charlie and the highlanders were the goodies; they fought against the English who were the baddies).
The idea festered for a bit, and I did some background reading (first-hand accounts of the time can be found on the internet if you look hard enough). The end result was MacGuffins and the Bonnie Prince, which I wrote in 2008. It featured three siblings getting caught up in Charles Edward Stuart’s failed bid to take the British throne: an elder brother who goes off to join him, a younger sister who runs off to bring him home, and the middle brother – the narrator – caught in the middle trying and failing to bring both of them back.
It was great fun to write. The historical accounts of the campaign are packed with interesting little details and incidents that could be woven into an adventure. Better still, very few of those involved were agreeable characters (least of all the Bonnie Prince, a monumental pillock if ever there was one). I could make each of them as vivid as I liked. And with a narrator traipsing up and down the country after his brother and sister, not wanting any part of the campaign, I had a suitably neutral ‘a plague upon both your houses!’ viewpoint.
The first draft (in 2008) was written just for myself. I’d added a whole load of footnotes and endnotes (after the example of Flashman), but it just made the story seem more like an academic text (according to the school librarian who kindly read through it). Kids wouldn’t care about the facts; they’d just care about whether or not it was fun to read (don’t we all?).
I followed the story with MacGuffins in the New World (following the children of the elder brother, set in the Seven Years’ War between Britain and France for control of Canada), for NaNoWriMo 2008, and MacGuffins Down Under (following the daughter of Bonnie Prince’s narrator, who inadvertantly joins Captain Cook’s first voyage around the world).
Soon, I was planning out a whole series of books from 1745 to 1945, each one featuring the kids of a narrator in a previous story who brush up against famous people during famous events. It threatened to turn into a kids’ version of Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples.
I started researching Mary MacGuffin’s Mysteries, which would have been set in Edinburgh during the Enlightenment; a sort of 17th-century Scooby Doo. But by this point, I was losing what was making writing these stories fun. I was getting caught up in research and not thinking about who the kids were and why anyone would want to read about them.
The concept had grown into an entire family, starting in obscurity in the highlands of Scotland, and then spreading around the world with the British empire (for better and worse). I was looking at the whole thing from a big picture point of view, rather than the more engaging small-scale and intimate.
The project’s on hold, like so many others, but it’s amazing the amount of creative work that goes on subconsciously. I love the MacGuffins to bits, and they’ll get their day in the sun (even if the clan name was precognitively plagiarised in Disney’s Brave)…